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In a number of openings, early moves involving an advance of the 'a' or h-pawns are commonplace. These flank moves can certainly complement standard development in a number of ways. In the case of the Neo-Grünfeld, particularly where Black holds onto the d5-strong point with ...c6, it has become popular to push the a-pawn two squares. There is definitely some space-gaining and jockeying for position going on, especially as either side can inaugurate this sort of action. So it seems that with both colours, modern masters have been able to liven-up a line that previously had a dry reputation.
For another 'spicing things up' theme, you could check out the 'anti 4.Bg5' idea involving an early ...g6-g5 (as in Moiseenko, A - Dubov, D), which was brought to my attention by a subscriber.

Download PGN of December ’19 Daring Defences games

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Neo-Grünfeld cxd5 with Nge2 [D72]

In Firouzja, A - Asadli, V White opted for 11.Nbc3:

which seems to score better than the more popular alternative 11.Nec3. In reply, Black has to choose between 11...Na6, 11...Bf5, or one followed by the other, as in the featured game. Here, Black seemed to be getting along quite well, but then his position collapsed quite rapidly. Asadli won the exchange, but when giving up one's fianchettoed dark-squared bishop in a middlegame, there is always a risk that the king becomes vulnerable, so perhaps 16...Bxd4 would have been more prudent than 16...Bh6. I'm not quite sure if any definitive conclusions can be made about the theoretical phase, as there are several alternatives available for both sides, especially on moves thirteen and fourteen. A rich area for further study.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Na3 Nc6 8.Nxc4 [D77]

In Ivanchuk, V - Saric, I Black reacted with 7...Nc6 and 8...a5:

Now, all sorts of move orders and subtleties have been tried, but the set-up is largely the same. Black aims to have a grip on the d5 and e4 squares whereas the a-pawn advance limits White's potential for expansion on the queenside. In the game, White was unable to demonstrate any advantage early on, but the tension remained. Later on, I'm not 100% sure if Ivanchuk missed a win, but he was certainly close!

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Na3 Na6 8.Nxc4 [D77]

Black's set-up with 7...Na6 and 8...c5 in Banusz, T - Plat, V seems to be adequate for equality, but Black had to be precise (15...Nc5! followed by 16...Nfe4! was better). Earlier, the main alternative plan (to the mass wood-chopping strategy of the game) involves placing the light-squared bishop on the long diagonal, which can be done on moves nine, ten, or eleven. I'm not sure what to recommend here, but Black can even try 9...b5 to spice things up. So with a fair selection of dynamic choice's, it seems that Plat's use of 7...Na6 etc is reasonable enough and makes a decent alternative to the main lines.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Na3 c5 [D77]

Black soon had problems in Dreev, A - Deac, B but that doesn't mean that 7...c5 is necessarily inferior. In the following position, after 10.Nab5:

10...Na6 seems to be playable (as it transposes to a line where Black is holding his own), whereas the root of his woes was the poor retreat 10...Nc7?. After his mistake, all Deac's efforts to resist by snatching a hot queenside pawn and then sacrificing the exchange (when things were turning sour) were in vain, as Dreev's technique was up to the task of converting his advantage.

In the opening, 8.Nxe4 and 9.Nb5 are a couple of other attempts by White in this line, each of these options could create problems for Black unless he finds a thin line of play towards equality.

Neo-Grünfeld 6.0-0 c6 7.Qb3 a5 [D78]

The Englishman won a long game in Fridman, D - Howell, D after a tough struggle, but the most notable moment was perhaps as early as Black's seventh move:

Black combines the solidity of 6...c6 with a dynamic way of generating queenside tension. Then White has to decide what to do about the a-pawn advance. If 8.a4, then the hole on b4 might be significant. Otherwise, against most of the alternatives, including the game move of 8.Rd1, then Black can play with ...a5-a4 either immediately or a little later depending on taste. The fact that Black achieves this advance with tempo, makes it look like a tempting option for me!

Neo-Grünfeld with ...c6 7 a4 [D78]

In Cordova, E - Dubov, D it was White who advanced his a-pawn. Sure he gains space, but it may seem like a committal advance especially as Black can reply with ...a7-a5 (when the b4-square constitutes a hole which Black might be able to use). In the game, things swung towards Black, so this wasn't a good advertisement for White's strategy. However, although I'm not sure about placing the knight on a3 in the first place, it did ultimately get to leap to c4 when it was rather well placed! So Cordova's play wouldn't perhaps have led to disaster if he had played 21.Nf3 instead of 21.f4. Still, alternatives to 8.Na3 on move eight deserve a closer look.

In Tukhaev, A - Gupta, A after 7.a4 Bf5 White opted for the knight leap 8.Ne5. In reply, Black reacted with the cautious retreat 8...Be6 to bolster d5, which actually turned out OK despite the loss of time.

The fact that White was even able to get in a4-a5 didn't particularly disturb Black who carried on with centralization before getting round to eliminating White's active steed. In the middlegame, Gupta outplayed his opponent for a while, but he later overplayed his hand and even lost.

As to alternatives on move seven, 7...a5 is plausible, but the main choice of 7...dxc4 is perhaps where the real theory story lies (see my notes for some details).

Neo-Grünfeld 5...c6 6.Qb3 0-0 7.0-0 Qb6 [D78]

Antoinette Stefanova introduced a daring pawn-grab novelty 10...Qxb2 in the game Dreev, A - Stefanova, A:

Now, some folk have made a living from grabbing hot pawns and defending resolutely, but it isn't easy to play this way! Dreev kept up persistent pressure and, although there was nothing concrete, the Bulgarian GM found it difficult to liberate her position. After a gritty fight, the opening up of the kingside turned out to be too difficult to handle. So despite it looking 'playable' to capture on b2, it might be more pragmatic to seek freer development with 10...Be6, which Nepomniachtchi certainly favours. Otherwise, alternatives at move eight might be worth investigating if even this one is a bit tricky to navigate.

Neo-Grünfeld with ...c6, Symmetrical Variation 8.Ne5 Ng4 9.f4 [D79]

The Symmetrical variation isn't everybody's cup of tea, but at least it's solid (for both sides!). In Georgiev, Ki - Rodshtein, A there was however some pressure generated in the game after 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.Ne5 Ng4 9.f4!? and White was ultimately successful, so this may be a handy way for the first player to exploit his lead in development. Black's problems in this encounter could perhaps have been avoided by various potential improvements, but it's 11...Be6 (rather than 11...e6) that is perhaps the clearest way to a satisfactory game.

Grünfeld 4.Bg5 Ne4 5.Bh4 g5!? [D80]

A subscriber was interested (after the standard 5.Bh4) in the wild-looking idea 5...g5!? which has been played a few times recently:

Although Polish GM Jacek Tomczak has been the main player in bringing this into the public arena, it was noticeably played in the high-ranking encounter Moiseenko, A - Dubov, D where Black was able to draw. The surprise value is quite high, the complications can be quite tricky, but objectively it doesn't look quite sound to me. A couple of ways that look promising for White are 6.Nxe4 e.g. 6...dxe4 7.Bg5 Bg7 8.Qa4+ (Jeffrey Xiong's choice) and 6.Bg3 h5 7.Qc2! (as played by Peter Wells). As to the game, 7.f3 was well met by the fine novelty 7...h4!. There are surely lots of discoveries, such as this one, just waiting to the uncovered, but Black needs quite a few to make this idea appeal to the mainstream (but that won't stop some risk-takers from giving it a go!).

Till next month, Glenn Flear

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